This panel addresses oil as central to current, interrelated economic and ecological crises. We propose formulating theoretical approaches for an anthropology of oil to stimulate research into what is unknown and needs to be known to address the current reproduction of disorder caused by big oil.
Oil is observed to cause disorder (as well as order) wherever it is produced. It raises hopes for revenues that better livelihoods of the poor, but fails to deliver what is expected of it. Instead, immense gains resulting from oil extraction go to big investors: state governments, national oil companies and the major oil multi-nationals. Thus, a particular conjuncture provides the rationale for this panel. First, it is a moment of Great Recession, when globally there is economic tribulation, especially in advanced centers of capitalism in the West. Second, it is a moment when both Global Warming and Peak Oil are being, or are about to be, experienced; both of which promise extreme economic and ecological distress. On a theoretical level, we observe a regrounding in materiality, as for example in the materiality of resources. Oil, and other petroleum products, are central to current, interrelated crises. Oil is the sine qua non of capitalist enterprise. Analysis of oil within an anthropological context, exemplified by the recent volume, Crude Domination: An Anthropology of Oil (2011), has begun to flourish. Given that an anthropology of oil has been proposed as a distinct subfield of a broader anthropology of resources, it is high time to organize a gathering to review what is known anthropologically about oil and to formulate theoretical approaches both to account for existing knowledge, and to stimulate research into what is unknown and needs to be known to address tribulations of the current conjuncture.